Postcard: How to Travel, Again

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How to Travel, Again

by Sean Talbot

In 33 hours, I depart for Nepal.

Story strewn across the candlelit basement: backpacks, toothbrushes, wool thermals, sandals (’cause we’re going to India, too, right?), fire staves, lighters, cameras, cash, knives, tea cups, and you-paid-what-for-that?! tags tossed unceremoniously into the recycle bin.

I’m embarrassed by how many Apple products, Bluetooth and USB devices are lying around. Even more by how many have a place in my bag. Am I really going to bring the computer, I wonder. Well, if I’m going to write a book…

Yesterday, on a spontaneous drive to Hood River, the man who pulled up my zipper at my wedding asked, “If you added the cost of everything in your backpack, what would it be?”

Jordan’s my climbing partner and 100% friend. A voice of reason – and challenge. Like, “Are you going to rappel this, or not?” and, “No, those aren’t the mushrooms you think they are.”

I count the months until we’ll climb together again.

When Jordan asked about the cost of everything in my backpack, I reconsidered my reasons for traveling. What a privilege it is to think, I can visit Nepal, Varanasi, Bangladesh, Burma. I can walk through the Himalaya, along the Ganges, hear countless stories, and still want for context. How arrogantly ironic it seems that I have the freedom and money to visit the most destitute regions on Earth.

What, exactly, am I bringing them?

The influence and love of friends is a new type of fuel for me. So are a GoPro camera and a desire to connect. I still have my feet and feelings and eyes leftover from former trips abroad, but I’m troubled justifying a desire to voyeur foreign squalor as a path toward broadened horizons. Should I stay in Portland instead, and live out white western privilege in the land of the less-free-by-the-day, or should I dream, discover, and explore the world just because Twain’s suggestion sat well with me in the 10th grade?

How do you travel, again?

via sean talbot @

I’m trying to remember previous trips, picturing my backpack full of used books and granola bars; Boris, the stuffed, eyeless spider hung from a carabiner on the shoulder-strap – how many times was that pillowy, cherry-red spiderbody swung into the back seat of an old van in Alaska, a Cadillac in Ireland, the Mercedes of a professional bodyguard who took us from an icy highway exit to a train station in Luxembourg? How many people said they picked me up just for the fedora, or gave me a place to sleep for the night because… why? Because I was there, and they were there, and could we connect at our respective velocities, even just for a few moments?

These flash-memorial travel narratives make sense only to those who were part of the stories – maybe that’s why they don’t seem popular with travel magazines. They’re looking for texture – the flickering candlelight on the inexplicably wet wall next to the sexiest bed in Glasgow, the sandy crunch of a sticky sweet found on a pier in Zadar. How the bobbed-hair girl in the next bus seat took so many pictures along the Croatian coast, I thought the camera’s beep would break my brain. I imagined how her slideshow back in Saskatchewan would sound: “And then, we turned left!”

What I leave behind this time has the texture of tears that refuse to be absorbed by arm hair, ones that fall like fists from the edge of a broken man’s lower eyelid when he hasn’t been hugged in two years.

Tony’s got a hurt soul. Two months ago, a young man to whom he was friend and mentor was killed by police. Left behind a month-old son. Twelve years before that, my teenaged best friend, Heeth (and Tony’s Little Brother, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program) committed suicide sophomore year. Two of his attempts at Positive Role Model wound up on the coroner’s table without good reason, and no one’s told him recently that he’s definitely a good man. Sometimes, I think I’m his only life support.

What am I doing traveling across continents with ambitions of experiencing local sorrow?

The backpack’s on the floor. It cost more than a rural Nepali earns in a year. I load up my luxuries, and trek across the world because it is a selfish portal to the antithetical search for enlightenment, to stories I want to collect and share with the diminishing western world.

That’s my intention: to collect stories. To find the poetry in Nepal. As if Peter Matthiessen, Milarepa, or a thousand generations besides have somehow failed.

It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to travel – just the opposite: I’ve learned to focus aimless wandering into semi-purposeful movement. The work is the journey itself. Inside, I’m not convinced that guilt is an effective use of my relative economic position. Even Alexander Supertramp found, in the end, the futility of burning all his money.

I hope.

Neither do I wish to compete with the poets. Stories are best told by tellers who understand them. What I wish for is context, understanding, the ability to release ego, and listen. That’s a good plan – stop trying so hard to Be, and just listen.

29 hours ’til takeoff. I take inventory, and find the contents of my backpack matter less than the reasons I fill it.

10 thoughts on “Postcard: How to Travel, Again”

  1. This is beautiful and even thought-provoking. I can relate to all of it, including the desire to see Nepal. This really made my day and handed me a much needed dose of writing motivation. Thank you for sharing these thoughts with us.

  2. This is wonderful, you feel so close as a reader. And, having recently had conversations with friends along the lines of “I don’t think I’m going to go there anymore, I might just go to India instead….” definitely hits a few nails on the head.

    Have you (Sean) read Rebecca Solnit, a Field Guide to Getting Lost? Not because it’s necessarily similar, but something about your writing made me think of that book (which I loved).

      1. ( : Love the portrait photo, where was it taken? And nice choice of quote, too.

        You’ve just made me revisit all my old essays – I read that book whilst at Uni and everything I wrote became scattered with Solnit!

  3. Thank you so much, all of you, for your kind words! Apologies for taking so long to respond – I’ve been staring at hotel ceilings across India for ten days with typhoid or somesuch… the doctors say ‘rest!’ always in places without internet.

    Catherine, the photo was taken by my wife, Heather, in Kathmandu, Nepal. Near the Indian Embassy, I believe. She also introduced me to Solnit, years ago, via ‘Hope in the Dark’, after reading some of my attempts at journalism about the Arab Spring. Will pursue her writing again at your recommendation, absolutely. Love the title 🙂

    Thank you Bani, for posting this. You’re awesome.

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